The Stone Prairie Home Guard ("SPHG") was the first Union military organization active in Barry County during the Civil War. It was organized informally in late April or early May, 1861, but existed officially only from July 6 to August 20. Its formal roster included 43 officers and men, largely from the Capps Creek and Gadfly areas in the northwest part of the county. Many of them went on to serve in other Civil War units and to serve as civic leaders of the county after the war. Official Roster with Biographical Annotations.
The Civil War began with an attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. Shortly thereafter, a group of 65 citizens, including several future members of the SPHG, met at Gadfly and passed resolutions condemning the attack and calling for Missouri to remain neutral in the conflict between North and South. The resolutions went on, however, to affirm an unalterable loyalty to the Union and concluded "we have here-to-fore flattered ourselves that we were a free and independent people, who had the right of thinking in religious and political matters, without molestation or hindrance from any source whatever, and still claim those rights; and will resist any infringement of said rights at all hazards and to the bitterest extremity."
Over the next several weeks, there were widespread reports of depredations against Union supporters in Missouri. The rights affirmed in the Gadfly Resolutions were being trampled by southern sympathizers. Although the state had not seceded, the state government and state militia were in the hands of men who leaned to the South and who failed to respond to these attacks by their like-minded friends. Rather than wait for protection from the federal government, Missouri Unionists invoked the long frontier tradition of self-help and formed home guard units to protect themselves. Eventually, these extra-legal organizations were given formal legal sanction. History of the Missouri Home Guard.
Strictly speaking, "home guard" should always refer to Union military organizations and "state guard" to their Confederate counterparts. The "State Guard" was the state's legally sanctioned militia under the command of future Confederate General Sterling Price and eventually absorbed the local Confederate-leaning groups that sprang up early in the war. In actual practice, however, many people found the names confusing and used them almost interchangeably. It is not unusual, for example, to see references to Confederate "home guard" units, to the "state home guard" or to other confusing mixtures of the terms.
If the SPHG began for the purpose of self-protection, it ultimately evolved into a scouting unit for the larger Union army. The first regularly constituted federal troops in Southwest Missouri were largely from St. Louis and badly needed local eyes and ears. The SPHG performed this function in the crucial interval between the Battle of Carthage and the Battle of Wilson's Creek.
In mid-June, 1861, Missouri's aggressive Union commander General Nathaniel Lyon forced the southern-leaning state government to flee Jefferson City and move to Southwest Missouri. There the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard led by Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and General Sterling Price planned to link up with General Ben McCulloch's Confederate forces in Northwest Arkansas. Any opposition encountered by the SPHG up to this time was presumably local and no better equipped or trained than it was, but suddenly the unit faced the prospect of encountering a real Confederate army. It was time to join the federal army also moving into Southwest Missouri.
The opportunity came in early July. On July 5, 1861, Union troops from St. Louis led by Colonel Franz Sigel and Captain Thomas Sweeny clashed at Carthage with Confederate State Guard units led by Jackson and Price. Outnumbered, Sigel retreated to Mt. Vernon during the night. There, on July 6, the SPHG was formally mustered into federal service. In the next critical month, as Union and Confederate forces aligned themselves for the Battle of Wilson's Creek on August 10, 1861, the SPHG served as scouts for the federal army.
Only one first-hand account of life in the SPHG is known. In the years 1898 to 1900, John Casto sought a Civil War pension and described his time with the unit as part of his pension application. According to his affidavits, the unit existed no later than the first week of May, 1861, and was a rough-hewn affair that slept on the ground without camp equipage or even bedding. After it joined Sigel, it scouted and reported daily. The Casto Affidavits.
The official history of the unit consists of one sentence in the Unit Register at the Missouri State Archives. It says the SPHG "was organized in Barry County June 1861 by authority of Col. Phelps and approved by Genl Sigel; and the duty performed consisted in scouting and watching the movements of the enemy until August 1861 when the same was disbanded." Colonel Phelps was Congressman John S. Phelps, who was a loyal War Democrat from Springfield and represented Southwest Missouri in Congress for 18 years before the war. He was a major organizer of early Union efforts in the area.
The SPHG was sometimes referred to as Captain Sexton's Independent Company after Captain John Sexton Jr. Although considerable information exists about his extended family, not much is known about Captain Sexton himself. He was born in Kentucky about 1832 and settled on Capps Creek with his parents in the late 1840s. By 1857, he was in Kansas Territory. In December, 1860, he returned to Barry County long enough to marry Martha Christopher two days after Christmas.
The Casto Affidavits indicate that the SPHG followed the common Civil War practice of electing its officers. It may be that Captain Sexton's residence in Kansas Territory during the "Bleeding Kansas" years somehow qualified him for leadership of the group. Or it may simply be that he was able to assemble the largest family voting block. The two Sextons in the unit were related by a double marriage to the two Bankses, who were in turn related by marriage to the two Hawkinses, who were in turn related by marriage to the two Goodnights and Jackson Daniel - a block of 9 votes.
Such family relationships were common in the unit. Of its 43 officers and men, at least 26 were related by blood or marriage to at least one other member of the group. If all of the relationships were known, the number would probably be higher. There were four men named Carlin, three each Carson and Casto and two each Sexton, Banks, Hawkins, Estes, Goodnight, Horine and Pannell.
Based on incomplete information, the average age of the group was about 31 years old. George Goodnight was apparently the youngest member at 15 and John Casto the oldest at 56. Only two men in the group were over 50, but seven were in their teens. Both of the older men had sons in the group, and all of the teenagers had fathers or older brothers.
Geographically, eleven of the men under age 25 in the unit were born in Missouri. The older men were born mainly in the upper South (VA, KY, TN) with a few from Indiana and Illinois. Occupationally, the group consisted overwhelmingly of farmers, but there were also a blacksmith (Alex Bryant), a carpenter (Keith Hawkins), a doctor (John Ray) and a preacher (Asa Carlin).
Of the 43 men who served in the SPHG, at least 25 later served in other Civil War units. Although no one is known to have died while serving with the unit, at least eight of its members were later killed in action, bushwhacked, died of disease contracted in service or disappeared without a trace during the war: Uriah P. Johnson, Moses E. Banks, John Baxter, Robert Carson, John Carson, John Wesley Carlin, Keith Hawkins and William T. Fox. Wiley Britton's Account of the Death of John Baxter.
Many members of the unit also provided civic leadership to the county both before and after the war. Uriah Johnson was on the county court in 1859. Moses E. Banks was constable of Capps Creek Township in 1856 and its justice of the peace in 1860. He ran for the state legislature in 1864. Dr. John Ray served as circuit clerk during the war and was later a newspaper publisher in Cassville. George Goodnight and Michael Horine served as sheriff. Horine was also circuit clerk and a Cassville newspaper publisher. Peter Swiger was justice of the peace for McDonald Township in 1861 and for Capps Creek Township in 1867.
According to the Unit Register at the Missouri State Archives, on August 6, 1861, Captain John Sexton left the unit in an "irregular and disorderly manner." His brother James Sexton, brothers-in-law Moses E. Banks and Jacob Banks and five others left with him. Nothing in the surviving records explains these departures, so we are simply left to speculate on the sort of tensions that may have existed in the unit just prior to the Battle of Wilson's Creek.
Although there is no record that the SPHG was actually engaged at Wilson's Creek, it was apparently with the federal army in the Springfield area at the time. On August 11, 1861, the day after the battle, twelve members of the SPHG were discharged and presumably returned home. The remaining 22 men retreated with the Union Army to Rolla, where all were discharged on August 20, 1861, and where many joined the 24th Missouri Infantry.
Register Missouri Troops, Office of the Adjutant General of Missouri, page 81. Both the original register and a microfilm (S936) are at the Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.
Civil War Pension File of John Casto, National Archives.
Goodspeed's 1888 History of Barry County (reprint), page 87, offers a muddled account of this unit which has it serving until the end of the war with different officers and men than those show in the unit register. It is certainly wrong about the length of time the unit existed and about its officers, but some of the men listed by Goodspeed's may have rode with the unit without being formally enrolled at Mt. Vernon. Certainly, many of the family names are the same. Goodspeed's Account.
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